Schumacher’s sensibility was well suited for budgets big and small, though those on the smaller end tended to serve him better. It’s not the Bat-nipples that come to mind when thinking of Schumacher’s ill-fated stint on the Batman series, but the neon-soaked cityscapes where clownishly attired goons ran wild and superpowered villains menacingly pranced about while delivering punny one-liners.
His vision of the town of Santa Carla in “The Lost Boys,” Schumacher’s reimagining of Dracula for the American 1980s, was smaller, but no less subdued and ultimately even more affecting. The crowded clubhouse occupied by the vampire David (Kiefer Sutherland) and his band of bloodsuckers truly calls to mind the film’s inspiration, Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, the immortal teens living in squalor because they don’t know any better, never maturing past their wild youth. The red-hued final battle between David and Michael (Jason Patric), who is trying to hold on to his humanity, called to mind a wicked womb, a bloody death and rebirth.
But despite David’s monstrousness, one gets the sense that Schumacher still felt some pity for this lost boy at the moment of his death. Note the haunting strains from the children’s chorus that backs Gerard McMann’s “Cry Little Sister” — Thou shall not fall / Thou shall not die / Thou shall not fear / Thou shall not kill — and the beatific light that drenches David in his death throes.
It’s not complexity that Schumacher was striving for here, exactly: David is undoubtedly villainous and meets his deserved end. It’s more a sense of sadness, a realization and a recognition that David never really stood a chance. He’s not the head vampire after all. That distinction belongs to Max (Edward Herrmann), a failed father figure who let his boys run amok with tragic results.
Similarly, William Foster (Michael Douglas) in “Falling Down” isn’t a good guy. Sure, he’s the protagonist of Schumacher’s, and yeah, we can feel ourselves cheering for him as he goes nuts bit by bit, losing it on convenience store clerks who lack empathy and gangbangers ruining his city and construction crews mucking up traffic for no good reason and, most annoying, those fast-food attendants who can’t be bothered to serve breakfast three minutes after the shift switch-over. Foster also rejects the modern sin of hatred and prejudice at one point in the film, earning the wrath of the racist owner-operator of the city’s finest military surplus gear.
Schumacher makes it clear to viewers that understanding Foster’s worldview is not the same as excusing his behavior; Foster the undoubtedly the villain of the piece, as the film’s finale makes clear. Once again, though, Foster’s villainy is at least in part the product of his surroundings, a mood amplified by Schumacher’s mise-en-scene. The hot-city sheen and washed out browns and yellows amplifying the urban angst and the ever-present smog surrounding — beating down on, really — a man on the edge make it clear why someone might be driven to the madness Foster unloads on unsuspecting passersby.
Given the pulpiness of much of Schumacher’s output — a body of work that included movies ranging from “D.C. Cab” and “Phone Booth” to “A Time to Kill” — it was almost odd, last year, to read his interview with Vulture’s Andrew Goldman. He had kind words for Woody Allen and Mia Farrow both; for Colin Farrell, Julia Roberts and Patric and many others he had worked with. His empathy sometimes took him to some cringeworthy places, among them his comments on the age of consent. But notably, his few pointed criticisms are leveled at those guilty of unkindness: Tommy Lee Jones earns a rare rebuke for being mean to Jim Carrey, for instance.
When looking back at his movies, the evilest of his creations — a character unfathomable in most every way — may be Machine (Chris Bauer) from “8MM.” Recounting the plot of that film in a family newspaper is difficult: suffice to say that Machine is a pornographer whose work has led to the death of an innocent. Bauer plays Machine with a sort of gibbering evil, a dead-eyed mania that betrays not a hint of humanity. The perversion of lovemaking — an art Schumacher was prolifically adept at; he told Vulture he had slept with between 10,000 and 20,000 men — into something evil and murderous was a bridge too far for Schumacher, a red line of sorts. There’s nothing to understand in “8MM,” nothing to empathize with. Just evil to snuff out.
This renders “8MM” an outlier in Schumacher’s oeuvre and one of the few of his films that makes for a difficult re-watch. In the end, his movies have endured, and will endure, because he had an empathetic streak that shone through even in the strangest of places, from vampire dens to urban war zones.